County blazes trail for first intercity bike/pedestrian path

Cities add bike trail connecting Visalia, Farmersville and Exeter to project list for Measure R transportation funds

TULARE COUNTY – With outdoor exercise at an all-time high, Tulare County is making plans to build its first inter-city bike/pedestrian trail.

The project would create a regional bike trail along Avenue 280 – Caldwell Avenue in Visalia and Visalia Road in Farmersville and Exeter – connecting Visalia, Farmersville and Exeter. The trail would link up with the Santa Fe Trail in Visalia and extend east through Exeter along Palm Avenue or Pine Avenue and Rocky Hill Drive all the way up Rocky Hill east of town to Yokohl Drive.

The trail will be funded through Measure R, the county-wide transportation sales tax, administered by the county’s transportation authority, the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG). The half-cent sales tax measure was approved by voters in 2006 and originally included a bike/pedestrian trail between the three cities along the San Joaquin Valley Railroad tracks aligned with K Road, between Caldwell and Walnut avenues in Visalia. The city of Visalia noted that all three cities no longer supported the K Road plan due to costs and challenges associated with railroad crossings. In addition to being less expensive than dealing with railroad crossings, the Avenue 280 corridor is already being widened as one of Measure R’s Regional Transportation Projects.

Exeter may benefit the most from the project as it will not only provide a bike trail through the heart of the city but also address the issue of pedestrian and cyclist safety on Rocky Hill, a popular destination for those wanting to challenge themselves by summiting the steep grade. The landmark has been a central piece of the Sequoia Cycling Classic and is currently a major draw for the Hell of a Half Marathon and the namesake and centerpiece of the Rocky Hill Triathlon.

In March, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors completed its feasibility study for creating pedestrian/bike lanes on 3.35 miles of Rocky Hill Drive between Spruce Road (Road 204) and Yokohl Drive. The preferred option for cyclists and motorists would create a 39-foot right-of-way (from hill to hillside) including an 8-foot wide, two-lane Class I bike/ped path and a 20-foot, two-lane roadway shared by bicycles and cars, also known as a Class III bikeway, separated by a five-foot buffer with a fence. The Class I paths will be used by casual cyclists and pedestrians while the Class III will be reserved for experienced riders more comfortable sharing the road with cars than people. The cost is an estimated $3.1 million, which will also be funded through Measure R, allowing for additional cost savings by connecting multiple projects.

The need to separate cars and cyclists from pedestrians was underscored by the study, which reported there are about 600 cars traveling the rural roadway each day. This contributed to 13 accidents on Rocky Hill Drive between 2013-2017, mostly due to improper turns and unsafe speeds. But pedestrian collisions have been driven by encounters with cyclists. In 2011, Scott Nelson, a 41-year-old math teacher from Visalia, was cycling with a colleague downhill when a runner, a 14-year-old Exeter teen, unexpectedly turned into the path of the Nelson’s bike. The impact threw Nelson from his bicycle and into the asphalt. Nelson died at the scene. He was wearing a helmet according to CHP. The 14-year-old runner was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center with minor injuries.

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Tulare County is nearing the verge to building its first inter-city bike/ped trail that would run along Avenue 280 – Caldwell Avenue in Visalia and Visalia Road in Farmersville and Exeter.Photo by Paul Myers

The Measure R Amendment includes seven other items that will benefit transportation throughout the county. The plan also allows trail and sidewalk funding be used for maintenance for projects such as the regional bike trail.

There were also items to create sustainable corridors by improving the view along the county’s main four main highways, matching funds for new technology investments, giving Porterville and Visalia more discretion on projects along Highways 65 and 198, allow Dinuba to choose either Avenue 416 or Avenue 400 for its thoroughfare widening project, and allowing more flexibility for spending funds on emerging technologies by eliminating “compressed natural gas (CNG)” and “light rail” from the language as it seem other technologies replace them in the future, such as the state’s requirement to convert all transit fleets to electric buses by 2040.

In order to be adopted into the Measure R expenditure plan, at least five cities must approve the amendment, enough cities to represent the majority of the county’s population as well as approval by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. It appears all three requirements were met last week after the Porterville City Council approved the amendment. All but Lindsay, Tulare and Dinuba have taken up and approved the plan and the Supervisors unanimously approved the plan at its June 30 meeting. TCAG could not be reached for comment on if the project had obtained the necessary approval from its member agencies.

Supervisor Kuyler Crocker, who represents District 1 encompassing the Exeter area, said the area was a great natural asset for the county to highlight but said the project was needed to improve safety.

“This is something I initiated at the request of constituents,” Crocker said. “There have been fatalities on Rocky Hill. Some walk in the middle of the street and there have been quite a few cyclists versus pedestrian accidents.”

Rocky Hill Drive is a well-known running and cycling route for local residents. The road is also used for recreational events, such as the annual “Hell of a Half Marathon” in Augusts and “Rocky Hill Triathlon” in April. While Rocky Hill Drive has some signage to direct pedestrian users, there are no marked sidewalks, crosswalks, or other pedestrian/cyclist infrastructure.

That’s concerning considering there are about 600 cars traveling on the road each day. Between 2013 and 2017, 13 accident happened on Rock Hill Drive, according to the California Highway Patrol.

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